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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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Joaquin Camacho, in his Engineering lab, shows the flame he uses to study the formation of carbon particles under different conditions. (Photo: Christopher Leap)

Flames of the Future: Joaquin Camacho Leverages NSF Award to Recruit Underserved Students

Mechanical engineer is one of the latest to earn a prestigious NSF CAREER Award.
By Melinda Sevilla

Joaquin Camacho is a trailblazer. 

The proud Mexican-American from Los Angeles tapped into his fiery passion for science while in community college. Camacho blazed his own path through college and went on to receive his family’s first degree. His undergraduate career further kindled a deeper curiosity for engineering.

Now, the San Diego State University mechanical engineering professor is a National Science Foundation CAREER Award grantee for his research on — you guessed it — fire.

Camacho’s project, titled, “Progression from soot to nanocrystalline carbon in elevated temperature flames,” was granted $500,000 from the NSF CAREER Award to continue his work. 

CAREER grant recipients are early career faculty members selected for their potential as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their institution. Camacho’s award is the fifth award for the College of Engineering in one year, along with electrical and computer engineer Junfei Xie, construction engineer Reza Akhavian, mechanical engineer Sung-Yong (Sean) Park, and environmental engineer Christy Dykstra.
“This is an exciting regime to study with potential impact on materials processing, emissions from propulsion systems, climate, and human health,” said John Abraham, chair of the Mechanical Engineering department, who enthusiastically supports Camacho’s research. 

Camacho said his research focuses on high-temperature aerosol and flame processes in nanomaterial device designs. At elevated temperatures that equate to over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, he and his team have found evidence that conventional soot formation changes into a new process in which nanocrystalline carbon spherules are formed. 

Admittedly, the NSF CAREER award means a lot for his research. But just as important, said Camacho, is its impact on SDSU students.

“I want it to serve as a catalyst to inspire students who come from lower income backgrounds,” he said. “I love my position at SDSU for many reasons, but one of the top reasons is the opportunity to serve our student body. A student body which reminds me a lot of myself starting out.”

Starting out, Camacho worked nights at UPS loading packages in a truck while attending Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. He then transferred to the University of California San Diego, where he studied Chemical Engineering and participated in research through the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program.

“My parents raised me right but they did not prepare me for college. I was clueless after I graduated high school. I always liked school but did not know about the application process for university,” said Camacho.
He credits excellent programs and professors for propelling him into the Ph.D. track, and said he likes to encourage today’s students to do the same, particularly those from nontraditional backgrounds. 
“I spent a total of seven years to get my bachelor’s degree. I feel a connection to our hardworking SDSU students because I share life experiences with many of them.” 
Now he’ll get to do more of that. Camacho’s CAREER Award project includes establishing programs to increase awareness of graduate school and academic career pathways for underserved high-school students, community college students and first-generation college students. This includes opening funded research assistant positions in Camacho’s lab, Energy FANS (Flames, Aerosols and NanoScience).
Camacho hopes SDSU students and other youth can find inspiration in his story. 
“I know first-hand that there is not enough awareness of college preparation and examples to look up to for many communities.”
Camacho aims to fix that by lighting the torch for others.